Wei-Yin Chen hasn’t had much reason to smile during his time in Miami, and it would be fair to say the Marlins haven’t exactly been pleased, either. Arm injuries have limited Chen to exactly 27 starts over the past two seasons, which comes out to about $1 million per start based on the money the team has paid him during that time.
But Chen was all smiles Sunday after throwing 16 pitches to actual hitters on a practice diamond.
“Of course I feel excited,” Chen said after completing the session. “I feel happy about that.”
And for good reason. Chen’s throwing session was a major step forward in his road to recovery, one that could result in his joining the Marlins rotation as early as May if all goes well.
Of course, when it involves Chen, that’s a big “if” given all the setbacks he’s encountered the past two years.
“Optimistic would be the word when I think about him,” said manager Don Mattingly, who would love nothing more than to have an experienced starter with past Major League success joining the rotation. “We’re kind of crossing some hurdles. At this point, I’m optimistic that you feel you’ve got a pretty good chance, if things stay on track, to get Wei-Yin back this year -- and fairly quickly.”
Chen’s live bullpen session was his first this spring. Now comes the usual process of building arm strength. He said he’ll throw once more to his own hitters, just as he did Sunday, followed by simulation games and minor-league rehab outings.
Among the hitters Chen faced Sunday was third baseman Martin Prado, who is also working his way back from knee soreness and will start the season on the disabled list.
More significantly, though, was Chen’s own assessment of the brief performance. He said his arm felt the best it’s been in two years.
“The past two years, the way I’ve been pitching and the way I felt, it wasn’t ideal,” Chen said through his translator. “As of now, it is. Today I felt like I got my feeling back like in the old days.”
The Marlins signed Chen to a five-year, $80 million contract before the 2016 season to help strengthen a rotation that then included Jose Fernandez.
But Chen made just 22 starts in 2016 and only five last season due to left arm inflammation. He avoided surgery, but the recovery process has gone slowly. He’ll be the highest-paid Marlin this year with a base salary of $10 million and deferred signing bonus of $8 million that will be owed to him in June.
Nobody knows for certain when he’ll be ready to pitch for the Marlins.
“You hate to give a time, just because of a little setback,” Mattingly said. “Let’s let this thing progress. There’s probably natural pauses in there that happens with anybody that’s on a rehab assignment, and we don’t want to try to get this down to a (particular return) date.”
One candidate for the Marlins’ still-unsettled rotation was eliminated from consideration on Sunday when Cincinnati claimed left-hander Justin Nicolino off waivers.
Nicolino was out of options, meaning he couldn’t be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers. Nicolino was the last remaining player of the seven acquired by the Marlins in their 2012 blockbuster trade with Toronto.
The soft-throwing southpaw never gained traction with the Marlins as either a starter or reliever, going 10-13 with a 4.65 ERA in 50 appearances (33 starts).
The move cleared a 40-man roster spot for the Marlins, which they can use to add a non-roster invite for their 25-man Opening Day roster.
Not that there was much doubt, but the Marlins officially informed outfielder Lewis Brinson and first baseman/outfielder Garrett Cooper on Sunday that they had made the team.
Both players were acquired in offseason trades: Brinson from the Brewers in the Christian Yelich deal and Cooper from the Yankees for international draft pool money.
"It’s going to be an emotional day for me and my parents and everybody that’s been with me through the ride, everybody that saw me play Little League and growing up loving the Marlins," said Brinson, a Fort Lauderdale native and Coral Springs High graduate. "My first Opening Day and I’m very humbled by it."